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We would like the world to become a better place but, all too often, we find that it has become a worse place instead. The big question is: why?
Even as children, it doesn't take us long to notice that bad things happen: sometimes these bad things 'just happen', and sometimes people make them happen.
Why do bad things 'just happen'? One basic reason is entropy: things wear down, wear out and break; left to themselves, things tend to become more disordered and less useful. Another basic reason is that accidents happen. For both these reasons, the world will become a worse place if we just sit back and do nothing.
Why do people do bad things? A common answer is: because they are bad people. When it comes to people who cause suffering, we often use the word, 'evil', a word with religious associations, but it is generally used to describe a kind of badness we don't understand.
Someone may be bad, or even evil, but just sticking the label 'bad' on people doesn't tell us anything new. Why do they do bad things? Because they are bad people. How do we know they are bad people? Because they do bad things. This answer is telling us about how we use language, but not giving us information about the world. People generally have reasons (although not necessarily good reasons) for why they do things, and the bad things they do are no different.
While we want the world to be a better place, we know, when we think about it, that this will not just happen by magic: we need to work to make it happen. Almost any change we want to see, whatever it is, will take work to achieve. And a significant part of that work will consist in countering the things which make the world a worse place. Some of the more important factors which conspire to make this a worse world include entropy, accident, ignorance, carelessness, impotence, power, pleasure, hierarchy, tribalism and utilitarianism.
Bad Things Just Happen
Entropy is one of the most basic observations about the observable universe. The second law of thermodynamics ('Heat cannot of itself pass from one body to a hotter body') describes the classical approach to entropy: it means that the amount of available energy in any closed system always decreases. The effect of entropy is that things wear down, wear out and break; left to themselves, things tend to become more disordered and less useful.
Accidents occur: the car skids on some spilled oil, and red wine gets spilled on the white carpet. As a child, I opened my mother's music box while wearing gloves, one of them got caught in the mechanism, and part of it broke.
The World is Structured to Make Bad Things Happen
Companies - and organizations of all kinds - have one thing in common: they are not people. Most people are generally kind and helpful, but organizations are not people: they are, quite literally, inhuman.
A limited company may legally be a person, but it is not a person. Most people want to be helpful and well-disposed to others, but a business only exists to make money. Most people work within a moral framework, even if they don't do it perfectly, but no company has a moral framework: instead, it has rules and procedures. Within an organization, 'doing the right thing' does not mean 'acting morally' - it means 'following the rules'. Even when an organization exists in order to do good, it is not a person, and it has policies instead of morality. And rules can never tell you the right thing to do.
Our culture tells us we must work to be successful, and that success means power; power is primarily measured by money, although fame and reputation may occasionally substitute. Success, of course, is never measured by love, kindness, creativity or anything else which actually matters.
Why is success the primary goal? One obvious reason is that our culture is largely influenced by people in positions of power - people who have succeeded. They influence by what they do, and by being role models. And people generally rise to the top of organizations by playing the power game better than anyone else.
And there is an obvious consequence: if you believe in the goal of success, you will struggle to make ecological sustainability a priority: success means you get more than anyone else, but ecological sustainability requires that we all get less than we might.
People Cause Bad Things to Happen
We live in a complex, inter-connected world, and don't always appreciate the consequences of our actions. Some car drivers don't understand that they have to put oil in the car as well as petrol, and the car seems to run perfectly happily, right up to the point where it seizes up. We have probably all discovered at some point that we have hurt someone quite unintentionally by what we said or did (or what we failed to say or do), because we did not know what the impact would be - and we had no reason to know. I once upset someone by making a passing reference to Mars Bars, not knowing that they had had a traumatic experience with a Mars Bar when they were young.
Sometimes, we simply don't care enough to avoid making the world a worse place. We can see this being worked out in several ways
- Selfishness seems to be a moral equivalent to entropy: it takes a significant effort to maintain any meaningful moral standard. When there are two choices, the morally questionable option is almost always the easier one, so we need to work simply to maintain our existing moral standards.
- Greed is another form of selfishness: I want this, and I don't care who gets hurt in the process.
- Sometimes we don't care enough about the future: it is easier to be short-sighted than to pay an immediate cost for long term benefit.
Caring for others, and for the future, takes effort, so it is easier to be selfish than selfless: I directly experience my own wellbeing, while the wellbeing of the group is inevitably less personal and less immediate.
Carelessness is generally seen as a sort of moral accident: sorry, the cup broke because I wasn't paying attention. But sometimes we choose not to pay attention, not to make the effort required. And sometimes, when we have done good, we give ourselves permission to be bad (see this nice summary by Abbas Panjwani).
Sometimes we cause bad things to happen because we don't believe we have the power to do anything about it. Sometimes we can't do anything, but sometimes we believe we can't do anything, and so we don't even try. Sometimes, it just takes one person to make a stand or take the risk, and we find that others join in.
Sometimes the suffering which is inflicted on other people is neither accidental nor incidental: sometimes it is deliberate. There are two main reasons for hurting people: it may be useful or pleasurable. When it is useful, this is often in the context of exercising power over others.
People in power often use suffering - either directly or indirectly - as a means of control. This may be done for very good reasons, or for very selfish reasons, or anything in between. There are very difficult arguments about the right ways to use suffering when teaching very young children, but in this case the intention is to make the world better: the child may feel the world is a worse place, but the lesson it has learned ("don't touch the fire") may be a very significant benefit. With adults, we may harm them as a tool, to be used at times, to ensure they obey promptly, to ensure they remember your position of power over them, and obey you without question. Sometimes it is important to make people suffer so that, later, you can threaten to hurt people and they will take the threat seriously.
It is sadly the case that some people take pleasure in hurting others. There is often a reason, a justification given for inflicting pain, in addition to the pleasure, so it is not always clear (even to the person concerned) how much the pleasure contributes to the motivation for inflicting pain. But it seems clear that sometimes people hurt others simply because they enjoy giving pain. We can often recognize that such people have been damaged in some way when they were young, but whatever reasons there may be for such behaviour, they still cause harm to others.
Humans are social creatures: we can hardly survive, and we cannot thrive, without the group, so we have two basic needs - individual success and group success - and, inevitably, those two needs sometimes pull us in different directions. I am always both competing with and cooperating with the other members of my group: I compete, because whatever you eat is not available for me to eat; I cooperate because when we work together, I can obtain more food than when I work alone. At the most basic level, individual success means that I survive and reproduce; group success means that my group survives and grows. Morality, as a social construct, is simply the issue of balancing my own needs against the needs of my group: I am immoral when I put my personal needs above the needs of my group, and I am moral when I put the needs of my group above my own needs.
Society naturally forms into a hierarchy; those at the top, with greater power, are both more successful than those at the bottom, and also more able to ensure their future success. So it is always in the interests of those with the greatest power to maintain the current systems which keep them in power, and to resist and punish anything which threatens, diminishes, questions or challenges their status and power - even if it would benefit the whole group.
I benefit from gaining status in my group; I can do that by doing something (probably hard, costly or dangerous) which benefits the group, or I can do it by undermining the status of other individuals in the group; it's easier to undermine others. And I benefit if others in the group are unwilling to do anything to harm me: they will be less willing to harm me if they know I have taken revenge on people who have harmed me in the past.
The group benefits if it has rules which ensure that people act in the group's interests, and punishes people for breaking those rules. And I benefit if I can gain from breaking those rules without getting caught.
My group is not the only group, but my success is only tied to the success of my group. Just as I am in competition with the other members of my group, so my group is in competition with other groups for the local resources; only once society is far developed does cooperation between groups start to provide me with any significant benefit, so I am by nature tribal - I understand success instinctively in terms of the success of my tribe, which basically means beating the other tribes when we come into contact with them.
All of these pressures drive me to harm other members of my group sometimes, and members of other groups when I get the chance.
I may find myself driven to harm others if I am pursuing a moral goal, a 'greater good', and it becomes necessary for people to be harmed in the process.
Utilitarianism is our default tool for making ethical choices, and it tells us we must harm others when, by doing so, we can obtain a greater good for the majority. This turns out to be the case, surprisingly often. And it often tells us we must hurt people now to help them in the long run: "I'm doing this for your own good." With practice, we can justify hurting other people a great deal.
This reason is often paired with others.
- One obvious example combines Utilitarianism with Hierarchy and Tribalism: the prison camp guards who excused their participation in genocide because "I was only following orders."
- Another obvious example combines Utilitarianism with Power: when you seek revenge, you demonstrate to the other person that they cannot treat you this way with impunity, and you also claim that your action is justified by their behaviour. It seems right to harm someone ("He got what was coming to him") - he needed to be punished in order to achieve some kind of justice. The person seeking revenge generally sees it as a way to 'balance the books', which is a moral objective.
People suffer in many different ways, much of the time. Some people believe that suffering is the defining feature of life ("Existence is suffering" is a common translation of the Buddhist 'First Noble Truth').
Suffering is much more than simple physical pain: suffering can be an emotion as well as a feeling. We experience anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, hatred, sadness, greed, shame and depression, amongst others. They all keep us caught up in our own problems, focused on ourselves, and they often rob us of the desire to leave a positive legacy, to do the good which we are capable of; and even when we retain the desire, they distract us and shift our focus.
How we can be set free of these negative feelings and emotions is one of the big challenges which much psychotherapy and many religions seek to overcome.
How we can reduce the suffering in this world is, at its root, what this community and website is all about.